So-called squatters’ rights mean that when it comes to land ownership, it really can be a case of use it or lose it. In a case on point that was recently reviewed by litigation expert David Watson, three siblings who let the weeds grow in a field given to them by their father came within an ace of having the property wrested from them by their neighbours.
The field, which had been in the siblings’ family since the 1950s, was gifted to them in 1987, but was thereafter little used and became heavily overgrown. The owners of a neighbouring wedding venue applied in 2017 to have the two-acre plot registered in their names. They asserted adverse possession rights in respect of it on the basis that they had treated it as their own for over a decade.
In rejecting the neighbours’ claim to the field, however, the First-tier Tribunal (FTT) found that it had, at least until late 2018, formed a separate and distinct parcel of land, bounded by historic fences. Their evidence that they had incorporated the field into their garden, spending about £1,000 a year on maintaining it, was rejected.
The field had remained accessible to the siblings until very recently, when the five-bar gate giving access to it had been padlocked by the neighbours. Although the neighbours may have taken steps to control vermin in the field and lit the occasional bonfire, such sporadic acts were too trivial to amount to the taking of exclusive possession.
The FTT had no hesitation in preferring the siblings’ evidence that the field remained important to them, both because of the childhood memories it evoked and as a potential commercial investment. All of them had visited the field now and again and at no point were they put on notice that it was being occupied, as opposed to merely trespassed upon, by the neighbours.